Callum Skinner says he retired from elite cycling because there was too much focus on performance and "not enough on getting better" when he told bosses of his mental health problems.
The Scot said at the time he wanted to focus on improving rights and working conditions for athletes.
"I was treading water and starting to sink, I guess," said Skinner.
The 26-year-old, who won team sprint gold and sprint silver at Rio in 2016, said he was still targeting Tokyo 2020 after taking some time out last summer, before deciding to step away from the track for good.
The 2018 Commonwealth 1km time trial bronze medallist says he was "going through a pretty tough time" and revealed to the management team at British Cycling that he was "suffering from pretty serious mental health issues".
He says the conversation then turned to how long his break could be before it would rule him out of the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, he added: "That was really just the point when I decided to step away.
"It was basically a little bit of a cry for help and it became all too much about performance and not enough about getting better, from my point of view.
"I wasn't going to go into that meeting and have my athleticism and my work ethic questioned. Especially when I'd taken the plunge in disclosing some of my mental health issues.
"At that point I decided just to bow out."
Skinner says he recognises the job of British Cycling is to make sure athletes are in a good state to perform - "whether physical or mental" - but suggests the issues he was struggling with were "not well enough understood at the time".
"I was asking for a break for the sake of my safety, which was recommended by Dr Steve Peters, my coach and the team doctor, so to then have that morph into a conversation about performance just made me feel as if this wasn't really something I wanted to do any more," added Skinner, who leads Global Athlete, an organisation set up to push for enhanced rights for athletes.
A British Cycling spokesman said: "We are aware of Callum's health problems and we sought to support him throughout.
"His feedback has helped improve the mental health provision for our athletes and we continue to wish him well in the next phase of his career."
Last year British Cycling said it would make changes to be more caring to riders following a damning 2017 report into allegations of bullying and a "culture of fear" that put the pursuit of medals above the welfare of athletes.
The governing body has since launched a new mental health strategy in a bid to support the mental health and well-being of its athletes.